LISTEN TO YOURSELFNo one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for awhile you'll see why. -Mignon McLaughlin
Do you know how to get to Sesame Street? Some people have found the way easily. I took a more scenic route.
When I was five, I saw a puppet show for the first time. It was a version of "The Three Little Kittens." I was very concerned that since the little kittens had lost their mittens, they would be punished by not being allowed to have any pie. Great relief when in the end they got their pie after all!
After the show, the players came out front to take their bows with their Steiff puppets, and I saw how a whole show could be done with little things on your hands. This idea stayed with me, and when I saw a puppet at a rummage sale a couple of years later, I put him on my hand, and I knew that I had to have him. The puppet was a monkey who had such a large hole in his head that my finger wobbled around inside. He cost a nickel.
I paired him up with a stuffed snake that my mother had made from green flannel. My family didn't have much money, so my mother would make us things like that for Christmas. With some orange crates, and curtains made from borrowed cloth, I fashioned a little puppet theater. I put a sign on our old barn: puppet show! two cents! Sixteen people came and paid, and I had an audience.
I can't imagine what I did with only the monkey and the snake to keep people entertained for half an hour. But as I recall, everyone left with smiles on their faces, and I had thirty-two cents in my hand. In 1942, that was enough money to go to the movies three times. I already wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. After this show, I decided that I would also become a puppeteer. By that time I was eight years old.
It was my mother who really started my career. She secretly enlisted the help of my brother Donald to make my combination Christmas and birthday gifts (I'm only five hours younger than Christmas day) for my ninth year.
On Christmas morning, there was a mysterious something sitting next to the tree, hidden under a blanket. My mother whisked the cover away like a magician to reveal a beautiful puppet theater! Under the tree were eight puppets that she had built herself, in bright satiny colors that would look fine on the stage. With those puppets and that theater I had everything I needed to do a Punch and Judy show. My mother was from England, and she thought that Punch and Judy was a good way to get started in puppets.
The more I gave shows, the more I felt the power that one has when one is performing. All these people would sit in a room and listen to everything that I said. I did all the character voices: little girl voices, an old lady voice, and a ghost voice. The audience listened, and clapped at the end, and paid me to do it. What could be a better way to make a living than to perform? I knew that I would wind up in the world of entertainment.
Puppet shows were the way I made money during junior high and high school. When I needed money to go to art school, puppet shows helped me pay for my tuition. In college, I studied commercial art because it seemed like a secure way to make a living based on my talents and abilities. It has served me well over the years. But I always looked for my next chance to put on a show.
Before I could finish art school, I joined the Air Force because I was afraid I'd be drafted into the Army to fight in Korea. I found myself stationed in Las Vegas drawing large pictures of bombs for training aids. Due to the heat of the desert, we started our workdays at 5:30 a.m. and were finished by two in the afternoon. This left me with a lot of free time. Drawing advertising cards got me a job with a local television station. That was the foot in the door that I needed to show the station manager my idea for Rascal Rabbit, a puppet show for kids. Eventually, he gave me a weekly half-hour time slot. The television industry was only eight years old, and I was part of it.
Rascal Rabbit was only on the air for a couple of months before I was transferred to Germany, but once I tasted performing live for the camera, I knew that was what I wanted to do. There wasn't much difference, especially in the days before videotape, between putting on a live puppet show and putting on a television show. I got the same thrill, only magnified a thousand times because of the much greater exposure. Even though I couldn't see the audience, I knew they were there, and in far larger numbers than could fit in any theater. Having done it once, I knew I would find a way to get back to television again.
After the Air Force, I finished art school and looked around for work. I got into animation, which paid the bills but could be tedious work with no applause or glory. I knew I couldn't do it forever. A local Boston television station gave me a summer-replacement time slot, and I teamed up with a talented singer named Judy Valentine to create The Judy and Goggle Show. Though our ratings were good, we were not picked up in the fall. Instead, we were offered a weekly appearance on Bozo's Big Top. It wasn't what we wanted, but we took it. It was another chance to do puppets on TV, and Bozo was the most popular kids' show of its time. It had a huge live audience and took place in a circus tent set.
On Bozo, I played a number of characters that were hand puppets, as well as nine different walkabout characters. The full-body characters got me out of the puppet theater, onto the main floor, and into the audience. It's ironic that Jim Henson never saw my work on Bozo, because I'm sure that playing these full-body characters was valuable experience for the claustrophobic job of playing Big Bird. Being a puppet as well as a costume, Big Bird is much more technically demanding and expressive than the simple costumes we used on Bozo, but some of the skills I developed there were useful later. I learned to roller-skate in costume, which I'm sure helped me to skate as Big Bird and Bruno the Trashman.
I was on Bozo for ten years. Some of my characters were: Grandma Nellie, Bozo's clown grandmother, who constantly tried to hoodwink him; "Mr. Lion-the fastest draw alive," a ringmaster lion who drew animals out of kids' names; and Kookie, the boxing kangaroo, who could be knocked out by any little kid, because he had a glass jaw and always led with his chin.
As the years went on, and my work was on the air live three days a week and on tape Sunday mornings, I slowly began to feel that my career wasn't really going anywhere. While what I was doing paid pretty well, it did not make me feel I had ever done anything really important. People study and work for years to become doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists-professions that add to the community and the nation. What was I doing? Working on the Bozo show as a bunch of sidekicks. It was schlock, and I was basically phoning it in. I wanted to do something more meaningful, but I didn't know what. All I knew was that it would be a TV show for kids and that it would involve puppets. So I decided to go see some puppet shows.
ASK HIM WHAT HE MEANS
Good communication is as stimulating as
black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.
-Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I was a member of the Puppeteers of America, an organization dedicated to the advancement of puppetry for amateur and professional puppeteers alike. They used to hold
an annual weeklong festival of puppet shows from America and all over the world. In 1968 the festival was in St. Louis, Missouri, and I thought that if I went, I might gain some inspiration.
The previous festival I had attended was in 1963 at a small resort hotel in the Catskills. I had driven there in my troublesome Volkswagen bus with only fourteen dollars in my pocket. Too broke to register as a participant, I had to sneak in to all the shows. There were lots of hilarious acts with both hand puppets and marionettes. Jim Henson performed, and he introduced his wonderful dog puppet, Rowlf. The dog was so new, his ear, which was only pinned on, fell off during his performance. Rowlf spoke of his deep philosophy using one of his fleas to make a point.
"You know," he said, "life is funny sometimes. How you look at things often depends on your point of view. Let me demonstrate."
He searched his fur and looked satisfied when he found a flea.
"Take this flea. Now, to me, it's this tiny and annoying creature that I can barely see. But to him, I'm a towering mountain of a being, and he knows that I hold in my hand the power of life"-he placed the flea on the play board and bashed it with a closed fist-"or death!"
I didn't get to talk to Jim at all at that festival, but I was humbled by his talents.
One of the presentations at the St. Louis festival was a film on Richard Teschner, an Austrian puppeteer who died in 1948. He had worked with rod puppets, magnificent figures with porcelain faces and flowing gowns. His stories were mostly macabre, with scenes such as a mad scientist working in his laboratory with his Igor-type assistant.
Still, in spite of the strange stories, they were the most beautiful scenes I had ever seen done with puppets. I was moved by the last story, "There Goes My Heart." A mechanical man sits at an impressive puppet organ and begins to play. A little mechanical glass duck waddles in and sits, obviously enjoying the music. When the tune is finished, the robot reaches over and pats the duck on the head. The duck looks at the man with loving eyes, and the little duck's heart suddenly glows bright red through his glass body. Did Spielberg get his E.T. idea here?
Teschner's work inspired me, and somehow I got the idea to create kinetic scenery for a multimedia puppet show. Not only would the puppets have movement, but the backgrounds themselves would move in time with the action. I would draw the scenery and film it on an animation stand.
I thought that I might build a large hand-puppet stage with a background made of a special surface for rear-screen projection. On the screen, I would be able to project animations of anything I chose: puppets who were done in animation, moving backgrounds, all sorts of special effects not usually possible in normal puppet presentations. I thought that combining the media of film and live puppetry could bring a new dimension to puppet theater.
I wasn't officially performing in this festival, but fortunately for me, like many puppet festivals this one included something called "potpourri," in which anyone can start a show, whether he's booked or not. One night at midnight, a bunch of puppeteer friends and I decided to get a potpourri together. We started knocking on doors, anyplace we saw a light on, and called out, "Potpourri in fifteen minutes in the lobby!" Thirty or forty people came down, and we did a show.
My cat puppet, Picklepuss, was with me, and I did some ad-lib stuff, making fun of lip sync. I did a demonstration of bad lip-synching, first talking with Picklepuss's mouth not moving, then suddenly with his mouth moving too much, and it got big laughs. Some people from the audience came up to me the next day and asked if I had a larger show. I boldly told them I did and that it was an experiment combining film and puppets. They liked the idea and said they wanted to book me for the Puppeteers of America convention the following year. Now I had to actually make my show.
In Newton, Massachusetts, I had use of an Acme animation stand. For months I spent evenings drawing and filming my presentation and designing and building my theater. I had studied some of the works of the Canadian Film Board and had learned how to make an endless zoom-in to give the image of a bird flying through a swamp jungle. I constructed a puppet seagull that flew directly away from the audience, and the illusion of dimension and movement worked perfectly. I also created in animation some tall dancing cones that would suddenly take form as rod puppets that appeared to jump off the screen and then perform in front of their own filmed images.
The screen itself was the largest and most expensive element that I required. It was seven feet wide by three and a half feet high and cost two hundred fifty dollars. It was a fortune for me, but necessary to fulfill my vision. I already had the projectors-a slide projector and an RCA sixteen-millimeter film projector, which I set up on ladders behind the screen. Then I built an elaborate theater out of aluminum tubing, with beautiful black cloth sewn on over the framework. Because the screen was above the play board, the top of the thing was nine feet in the air. This forced me to work on my knees, because to work standing up would make it even higher, too high for most stages. I put down padding, and made knee switches to control the music and the projectors. I could run the entire show-all of the puppets, the sound, and the visuals-by myself, on my knees.
I was asked to perform my new show at a small regional puppet festival in Binghamton, New York. A good friend and neighbor, Ronny Chick, helped me build a large plywood box in which to transport the theater to Binghamton.
I believe it was in April 1969 that I first presented my new production. It went smoothly and I considered it a success.
I named the show Picklepuss and Friends. It featured Picklepuss, my puppet cat, as master of ceremonies. I was going to place the opening scene in a back alley, where Pick would emerge from a trash can with a fish bone on his head. There were so many elements to put together that I never got around to making the trash-can prop. Of course, Jim didn't know about this when he assigned Oscar to me.
Building this show was so exciting that it lifted me out of the Bozo miasma I had been dwelling in over the previous years. With this magic theater, I could mount any scene, with a background done either in art or in real photography.
I thought I was ready for the big audience at the national puppetry festival in Salt Lake City.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) by Caroll Spinney with J Milligan. Copyright © 2003 by Caroll Spinney with J Milligan. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.